Too much of a good thing?

Written By Corey Navis

When speakers offer their opinions through dichotomies, we are usually presented with contrived choices. It makes me skeptical. Yet, recently, I was presented with such a dichotomy and I took notice. At a recent assistive technology conference the keynote speaker, Joy Smiley-Zabala, suggested K-12 schools exist somewhere within two paradigms: Assistive Technology is not talked about OR there exists an assortment of tools being employed. Both of these realities in K-12 education are problematic.


When “Mums the Word” on Assistive Technology (AT)

On one end of the spectrum, assistive technology rarely enters the conversation as a solution for a student who struggles. In my experience, this is not the result of unmotivated educators. Rather, these teachers work within a system which emphasizes human intervention and “hard work.” As a result, I hear stories of principals being lauded for spending study halls reading to struggling learners. Or whole peer intervention teams structured so that students read to their struggling peers. In one stance, a special education teacher in a rural district told me she sensed resentment when she read to her high school students. Imagine getting up at 4 am to do adult manual labor only to come to school and be treated like a child. In these scenarios, long term independence and confidence gives way to antiquity and misguided effort.

Free AT Does Not = Easy

                     Alternatively, schools with strong technological infrastructures coupled with specialists in assistive technology, may approach a myriad of solutions. I recently spoke with a special education director who was surprised Kurzweil Education was still in business. He was equally surprised when I told him we are doing quite well in this environment. He asked, “With so many options that are free, how do you say you do well?” My answer came from years of educational leadership and was reinforced by the aforementioned keynote speaker: “An abundance of choices provides the illusion of solutions while creating results similar to as if they did not exist.” Asking students who struggle to expense cognitive energy on learning new technologies diverts that energy away from learning.

All learners, but struggling learners in particular, should embrace educational technology that they need on a daily basis. That way they can rely on that technology for a life of independence and confidence. Technology, like Kurzweil 3000, is developed specifically with the end-user in mind. Rather than asking a struggling learner to master several unsupported options, technology developed with them in mind, provides multiple solutions within one program.

Asking students who struggle to expense cognitive energy on learning new technologies diverts that energy away from learning.


Bridge the Gap Between Options and Independence

Joy’s keynote speech ended with a quote I will never forget, “We need to assume competence while not being satisfied with the stories of how things have gone. We need to help students create their own myth through confidence and independence. Help them to be fully human and in control of their own future.” Beyond our pithy mission statements lies real solutions. Educational technologies created to provide a pathway to independence exist and can bridge the gap between independence, choice and good intentions.

Having been part of teams that ran schools with tight budgets and declining enrollments while facing the reality of increasing student needs, I understand the pressure to pursue low cost solutions. At the conclusion of all our searching and penny pinching, we concluded low cost and human effort does not surpass our mission to support life-long solutions. Solutions specifically designed and supported for individuals that struggle will always have a prominent role in the marketplace. A tool that brings multiple solutions under one roof should not be passed over because there is cost involved. Rather, we should ask ourselves: “What are we providing to our learners that is sustainable for their independent authoring of their futures?”


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